The Empire Hypes Ads

Yes, technology is changing advertising — along with everything else. But it’s not a sob story.  

“Obey” (2013),  an homage to the 1988 cult film   They Live   courtesy of Flickr user  Poster Boy .

“Obey” (2013), an homage to the 1988 cult film They Live courtesy of Flickr user Poster Boy.


In his essay “How the Mad Men Lost the Plot,” published in the Financial Times Weekend Magazine, Ian Leslie arrives at a conclusion that rings true: In the face of technological disruption and unrelenting audience segmentation, the core facets of advertising essentially still apply.

But the path to that uncontroversial determination is fraught with quite a few contradictory thoughts and claims, mainly in the form of odd quotes and anecdotes from some spectacularly successful advertising people. It is they who have lost the plot, though maybe not in the way in which the headline implies.

The old guard’s main gripe seems to be this: Advertising used to be more culturally relevant and even artistically rewarding, until digital technology came and ruined the party through its many distractions and its core obsession with ruthless efficiency and metrics. And because of that shift toward measurement and targeting, ads have lost cultural resonance. This line of thinking is not uncommon.

Early in the piece Mr. Leslie quotes a major figure in ad world who last fall once again made the trip to Cannes, only to find the industry awards extravaganza rather wanting. To wit: Facebook and Google had the prime beach spots. To add insult to injury, upon returning home and attempting to regale friends with tales of Cannes glory (mitigated though it may have been this year), the recipients “looked bored, even pitying.”

The upshot, as Mr. Leslie nicely sums up, is this: “An industry that used to compete with Hollywood is starting to wonder if it has become a colonial outpost of Silicon Valley.”

I doubt that pity is ever quite the right response to a Cannes trip. But more to the point, I’m not sure why in 2015 competing with Silicon Valley would be viewed as any less respectable or desirable than competing with Hollywood, particularly when some of the most interesting original material is being made by Netflix and Amazon (and viewed via Hulu and HBO Now apps slung through Apple TVs). The truth is that all those conniving technology companies, including Facebook and Google, now have a far more considerable effect on global culture than TV or films do. (Even video games alone are far more popular: Hollywood box office numbers pale in comparison to video game sales, and by a gigantic margin.)

Yet the technology fears are stoked further: “A recent report from Accenture said that ‘marketing is so inextricably linked to technology that, by 2017, chief marketing officers are projected to spend more on information technology than chief information officers.’”

Again, I’m not sure why investing more in technology should automatically be considered a bad thing, which seems to be the implication.

All this is enough to trigger wispy reminiscences of advertising’s supposed “creative golden age” . . . the 1970s? We’re informed that Coca-Cola’s famous 1971 spot “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing” was a watershed moment in advertising, marking the industry’s departure from merely selling (shudder) to not bothering “to persuade anyone of anything…. It simply lifted the heart a little and got everyone singing its song.”

This is a bizarre claim. Only someone wholeheartedly duped by the positioning of that old ad — “We’re Coke and we get you! Peace and love, man!” — could believe the Coca-Cola Company requisitioned it for kicks rather than out of pure Flower Power–hijacking cynicism, and transparently so. That obvious fact doesn’t make it a bad ad or an unimportant one. But come on. Coke and McCann-Erickson were trying to persuade people of something all right, and apparently it really was a great ad because it’s still working over four decades later. (Or perhaps someone just drank a little too much of the Mad Men Kool-Aid — even though that overrated show was just a beautifully shot, stylish yet largely incoherent soap opera.)

Simpler times.  “ Retro TV   ”   — Digital illustration courtesy of artist Rafael Garcia ( fali1978 ).

Simpler times. Retro TV”  — Digital illustration courtesy of artist Rafael Garcia (fali1978).

For certain folks, sure, making ads might have been more fun then, because it was assured that most people would see them. People had far fewer channels to click to, not to mention a dearth of alternative entertainment options relative to today. This state of affairs guaranteed a highly captive audience and a sort of forced cultural cohesion, unlike the present media environment, which is “corrupted” by YouTube and Twitter and Facebook and innumerable devices and channels and screamers for attention. As the essay points out regretfully, “Social media allowed marketers to co-opt consumers by inviting them to share ads.”

But hold on, why isn’t sharing ads on social media seen as advantageous? Millions of people can now send each other an unlimited amount of treacly Coca-Cola ads and watch them over and over again to their hearts’ content, singing along. Doesn’t that solve the problem?

Nope, because the perceived problem isn’t really the ads at all. It’s that all these new media options have altered how people view TV and broadcast ads in particular (heaven forfend), lowering them in their estimation to boot: “Everyone agreed that TV ads were not just wasteful, but crude and intrusive, and that viewers would use new technologies to avoid them.”

OK, so “everyone” agrees that TV ads are “crude and intrusive.” Does that mean they’ve stopped making broadcast ads? Of course not. As we’re told soon after, “Nearly all brands in mature categories still rely on conventional media.”

We’re also informed that “TV is in healthier condition than anyone predicted 10 years ago.”

And that “A recent US study found that ad-skipping is declining.”

And that “TV adspend is at a record high, boosted by the campaigns of digital businesses like Amazon, Facebook and Google.” [Emphasis added.]

Well, OK then! So basically those naysayers’ complaint — which boils down to “TV ads are beauteous and good; digital advertising is crass and bad and based on ruthless efficiency and metrics only” — isn’t grounded in anything at all. They’re just upset that the world is changing, and that people are adapting to it, or trying to, as best they can, until it’s time to adapt again, which was yesterday.

Mr. Leslie raises a good point about the current state of affairs: “In fact the only part of the TV package that hasn’t improved is the ads. According to Kantar Media, in 1986, 28 percent of people in Britain said they enjoyed the ads more than the programmes. Today, only 12 percent say so.” But those figures — and they’re just from a single poll, mind you — don’t rule out the possibility that ads have also improved, just not as much as TV shows themselves (in the eyes of those viewers). But say we take the numbers at face value: Whose fault is it? Google’s? Facebook’s? I mean, even Super Bowl ads are mostly crap these days.

But in the end Mr. Leslie clears away all the nonsense from the bigwigs with his closing line: “In the rush to reinvention, don’t forget your USP.” Which is another way of saying, advertising isn’t being reinvented at all.

So why all the whinging?

If we’re being honest, it seems there are two complaints: 1) That people are no longer held captive to a limited number of network stations and alternative sources of entertainment; and 2) that there are “new technologies” that distract people or, worse, let people block crap.

These developments could either force the industry into complete capitulation, leading them to devote less time and resources to creating ads, or it could inspire them to create better ads — ones so good that they might be shared over social media, for free, ad infinitum.

These ad titans don’t miss the ads at all. In fact, beautifully shot, creative, funny, thought-provoking ads are still being made, across every medium too. (I have a friend who produces TV commercials; she says that at first her industry colleagues feared that digital would diminish TV business, but the opposite has happened — there is more opportunity than ever before, including for TV, thanks to the rise of digital technology.)

So they don’t miss the ads, which are still around or waiting to be made. What they do miss is the attendant cultural cachet from having built-in captive audiences forced to sit through them.

This might not look like such a bad idea after all to some ad types.  “Viddy well, my droogies!  ” Image of Malcolm McDowell from   A Clockwork Orange   (1971) property of Warner Bros.

This might not look like such a bad idea after all to some ad types. “Viddy well, my droogies!” Image of Malcolm McDowell from A Clockwork Orange (1971) property of Warner Bros.

People have more choices than ever before about where and when to focus their attention. There is great uncertainty, and the new landscape will work out better for some than for others, but the magic and meaning of any art form or communication is not in its medium but in its quality.

In another section I largely agree with, Mr. Leslie paraphrases Professor Byron Sharp, author of How Brands Brow: What Marketers Don’t Know (2010), in saying that advertising “works best when it doesn’t try and persuade, but merely makes us remember the brand at the point of purchase.” In other words, the best advertising makes a brand likeable, or at the very least not annoying or cringe-worthy. It’s the same rules that apply to being a good person: we’re all trying never to be that guy. You know, that guy. Don’t Be That Guy (or Gal).

In relationships, in art, in productive endeavors of every sort, the issue is quality. Attempt to be a better human. Try to make better stuff. Try to be entertaining or at least not boring once you find the right audience with similar interests. Otherwise you’re wasting your time, and you’re wasting other people’s, too.

Regardless of what advertisers do, we lowly Proles will continue to use our newfound scary technologies to avoid bores at every possible turn. There are lots more channels now. There are lots more ways to watch shows and movies at times and on devices of our own choosing. There are fewer reasons to subscribe to major daily newspapers or watch lame network news than ever before. There are lots of ways to block or otherwise avoid material that does not interest us, or worse, that annoys us or makes us roll our eyes. And there are lots of ways to persuade people to buy products, even the magical Cinco Pasta Bear.

So cheer up, there’s still lots of fun to be had for everybody. It’s just that we all have to make our own fun — which is the way it’s always been.



Posted on November 9, 2015